“There are many ways to the Divine. I have chosen the ways of song, dance and laughter” Rumi, 13th century Persian Sufi Mystic and Poet
One of the first things I discovered on arriving in the area 8 years ago is that they love a good party in Hastings and if you have to dress up for it, even better. There’s a celebration for every time of the year and more. There are pagan festivals, a weird pirates day, bonfire shenanigans, their own unique version of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), numerous seafood and other gastronomic events during the summer months plus countless other more esoteric events to cater for every taste. Most of them seem to have one thing in common, copious quantities of alcohol and the chance of dressing up in a costume, often the more outrageous the better. Although there are numerous events, as I stated above, I will concentrate on the 3 largest events in the calendar, namely Jack in the Green held in May, Pirates Day in July at the height of the summer and the Bonfire Procession normally held in the middle of October. The rest will have to wait for another time.
The year we arrived, our first experience was the pagan festival of Jack in the Green held on the May Bank Holiday and we were not prepared for it. For a start, we were vastly underdressed (i.e. we didn’t have a costume) and initially it brought back traumatic memories of watching the human sacrifice in the cult 1970s film “the Wicker Man”. However, my fears were unfounded and at the end of the day no one was sacrificed to the gods (at least to my knowledge).
Jack in the Green is an ancient ritual with origins in paganism and is held in a number of places throughout Britain, although Hastings would claim theirs is the biggest and best and who am I to disagree. By the 20th century the custom had mainly died out, but in 1983 it was revived in Hastings and since that time has grown into an enormous event.
The main procession starts at 11am on Bank Holiday Monday, where Jack is released from the Fisherman’s Museum in Hastings Old Town, together with his protectors, the Bogies and Black Sal, his consort. The procession is followed by various groups including the Lovely Ladies, the Gay Bogies, the Milkmaids and of course the Chimney Sweeps, who have always been historically associated with Jack-in-the-Green. Mayday was a traditional holiday for chimney sweeps and is often known as Chimney Sweepers Day. The procession continues with Giants depicting various historical and mythical figures together with Morris Dancers from the length and breadth of UK. Finally, last but not least, are the ubiquitous drumming and percussion groups, which are an exciting feature of all the main Hastings Festivals.
The procession winds through the narrow streets of the Old Town and then continues its way up to the top of the West Hill that overlooks the Town. Dancing and Singing continue for several hours until at last, at around 4.30pm, Jack is brought forward and is symbolically slain and the spirit of Summer is released for another year. We all live in hope.
At last the crowds can all disperse home feeling energised and exhilarated as yet another successful celebration draws to a close.
Following the debacle of Jack in the Green we were more prepared for the following event, Pirates day, so we found appropriate hats and scarves and added an eye patch and thought we looked the bees knees. We then we walked into town and then the terrible truth dawned on us – this was serious stuff. People go to tremendous lengths to achieve a realistic look, many having their own tailor made costumes and sporting genuine old pistols and cutlasses. There are scores of Jack Sparrow look alikes, each competing to look like Johny Depp. In light of recents events concerning Mr. Depp, they might not be so keen in the future.
There is a rebellious streak in the people of Hastings and Pirates Day gives people a chance to channel their inner Buccaneer. How Hastings became the Pirate Capital of the World is not entirely clear, but what is indisputable is that Hastings holds the Guinness World Record for the most pirates gathered in one place, 14231 to be precise, which took place in 2012 and which hasn’t been beaten since. Towns in the USA and Germany plus Penzance in Cornwall have all tried to take our crown but without success. Penzance feel they deserve the crown as they’ve had a Gilbert and Sullivan opera written about them and I agree “The Pirates of Hastings” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they need to get over it. Hastings is ‘Pirate Central’ and will continue to be so for some years to come.
The procedure is similar to Jack in the Green, with a mass procession in the Old Town with again loads of percussion and drumming and finishing up this time at the beach, where there is normally plenty of live music. There may be a bit more alcohol consumed than Jack in the Green, but we are talking about pirates after all, who you wouldn’t expect to behave themselves.
Its a great way to spend a summer’s day and wonderful to see the bewildered stares from the holidaymakers who had not been warned of what was taking place.
Finally we come to the Bonfire Procession, which is not unique to Hastings but is part of a wider network throughout the South Coast. The Sussex Bonfire Societies, of which there are approximately 50, are unique in the UK and have their historical roots in not only the Gunpowder plot but also the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes’s High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor. Because of the large number of societies involved and the collaboration between the various towns, the bonfire season starts at the beginning of September and finishes in November. Lewes is by far the largest procession in early November, but Hastings is probably the second largest and has the advantage that people can still view it at close quarters and feel the excitement and danger as the flaming torches pass by, a few inches from their face.
It takes place in the middle of October and the best spots to view the procession are in the narrow streets of the Old Town in either All Saints Street or the High Street. This gives the bystander a visceral thrill and edginess, which is not present in the other Hastings festivals. The procession seems to go on for ever, as Bonfire Societies from all over Sussex and Kent descend on the town, distinguished from each other by their uniforms and their particular society and banners, but with nearly everyone of them carrying a flaming torch. And of course there are the drummers, who never miss the opportunity of a good festival.
At the rear of the procession are people carrying flaming carts, picking up the dropped and waylaid torches along the way. The procession wends its way down to beach, where an enormous tower of driftwood and pallets has been prepared and the flaming torches are thrown onto the timber construction, creating a monumental bonfire that can be seen for miles around.
Finally, at the end of the proceedings there is a wonderful firework display, which even in the few years I have attended seems to be getting better and better, the end of another exhilarating evening.
One thing that I have noticed in the few years that I have lived here is that these seasonal events seem to cement a common unity amongst us who live in Hastings and St. Leonards. In spite of all our differences, both political and personal, for a few hours we become one, living in the moment and enjoying life with song, dance and laughter.
But alas, the pandemic in 2020 has put paid to all our communal enjoyment in a particularly cruel way as we studiously avoid each other and steer clear of any sign of a crowd. The rowdy Festivals that took place in 2019, seem like a distant memory before the whole world changed. As things recover slowly, we must hope that 2021 will allow us once more to recapture that unique spirit of Hastings so that we can once again be the Town that loves to Party.